Fowler's wit has Houllier in raptures

If the sole legacy of this season's FA Cup is the re-establishment of Robbie Fowler as one of the Premiership's outstanding forwards and the resumption of an England career which has yet to progress beyond the apprenticeship stage, the old competition will still have done its bit for club and country.

Though Fowler's ability has never been in doubt, recurrent injuries, scrapes on and off the field and the prowess of first Michael Owen and then Emile Heskey have combined to create the impression that if any attacker was likely to leave Anfield it would be he.

On the evidence of Fowler's contribution on Saturday, however, any such thought by Gérard Houllier would have to be regarded as a case for certifying. Three days after announcing a dramatic return to form in Liverpool's imperious dismissal of Crystal Palace from the Worthington Cup semi-finals, the 25-year-old practically lugged them into the last 16 of the FA Cup single-handedly.

The late goals that reduced Leeds's ambitions this season to long odds in both the Champions League and the Premiership were scored by others - Nick Barmby in the 88th minute and Heskey in stoppage-time - but Fowler made important contributions to both, having borne virtually the entire responsibility for Liverpool as an attacking force until the final 20 minutes.

If the watching Sven-Goran Eriksson had hoped to witness further evidence of Steven Gerrard's potential or the likelihood of Heskey and Owen emerging as an international strike force, he was disappointed. Gerrard and Owen were unfit and Heskey, recovering from a strain, came on only for the last quarter-hour.

Yet the England coach could hardly fail to be impressed by this reminder that in terms of fetching, carrying, foraging, passing and thinking, not to mention his prolific scoring habits, Fowler at his best can even now be the answer to the question of succession posed by Alan Shearer's international retirement.

Fowler still has to regain his sharpness near goal but as Houllier observed: "In terms of winning the ball, holding the ball and linking he has been much better over the last two games and it looks as if he is going to reach a very good level. If he does the right things we will have a player.

"I've always said that we want four quality strikers at Liverpool. I don't want Robbie Fowler to leave the club, nobody else wants him to leave the club and he himself doesn't want to leave the club."

Saturday's team could have been designed to prove a point on behalf of both player and manager. With Jari Litmanen rested, Houllier asked Fowler to take on Rio Ferdinand and Jonathan Woodgate while receiving scant support from Vladimir Smicer. Though Smicer is a gifted player for the Czech Republic he is too easily brushed aside in the English game and in terms of taking the weight off Fowler he was about as effective as Stan Laurel.

Houllier hoped that his front pair would get support from midfield but until the second half Gary McAllister, Dietmar Hamann, Igor Biscan and Danny Murphy were consistently pressed back by Eirik Bakke, Lee Bowyer and Dominic Matteo, with David Batty collecting the loose ends.

During this period Fowler's ability to come deep for the ball, gain possession and keep it relieved some of the pressure. Not until Barmby came on after 68 minutes, followed by Heskey after 73, did he enjoy the support which was to win Liverpool the game.

In the end a match littered with poor passing was won by the side possessing the greater assurance in taking their opportunities. And Matteo's failure to find the target with a free header after 64 minutes proved to be Leeds's last chance.

With four minutes remaining Barmby put Liverpool ahead after a shot from Fowler ricocheted to him off a post, and in stoppage-time Ian Harte could head Fowler's cross only to Barmby, who this time laid the ball back for Heskey to wallop past Nigel Martyn.

Leeds (0) 0 - 2 (0) Liverpool
Barmby (87)
Heskey (90)

Leeds United
Martyn; Ferdinand, Harte, Kelly, Matteo, Woodgate; Bakke, Batty, Bowyer; Keane (Smith), Viduka.

Westerveld; Babbel (Barmby), Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Biscan, Hamann, McAllister, Murphy (Ziege); Fowler, Smicer (Heskey).

Referee: A. P. D'Urso (Billericay)

Attendance: 37,108

Leeds United: Harte (52)
Liverpool: McAllister (26) Smicer (38) Biscan (80) Ziege (90)

Sent off


Leeds United: 10
Liverpool: 14


Leeds United: 4
Liverpool: 0

Goal attempts

Leeds United: 9
Liverpool: 11

On target

Leeds United: 5
Liverpool: 2

Hit woodwork

Leeds United: 0
Liverpool: 1


Leeds United: 5
Liverpool: 3

© Guardian Newspapers Limited

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